In India and other countries with similar challenges, both primary and higher education witness a couple of things in common — dreams have little wiggle room and a low ceiling while learning experiences are not as diverse or effective as they could be.
What shapes the stuff of our dreams? How effective can diverse learning experiences be in reaching ever-growing heights of imagination and creativity?
Mandawa is a small town in Jhunjhunu district in the state of Rajasthan, India. Around 190 km away from the capital city Jaipur, this 18th-century settlement is known for its havelis and forts along with the art and architecture that they embody. The narrow lanes look aged and wise, ever welcoming of both the tourist and the local to a wealth of culture and stories.
Quite a few of those lanes in Mandawa also take you to poor neighbourhoods and communities. Many children are not able to attend school regularly because they are needed at home, or they need to earn money doing manual labour. It is quite common at the beginning of the academic year to see the principal and the teachers visit homes in the school’s neighbourhood to get the children to school.
I was neither the tourist nor the local when I spent two years as a Gandhi Fellow in Jhunjhunu, working closely with five government schools. One such school was Mandawa-8. Most of the children came from the poor Muslim neighbourhood. The 1st and 2nd graders were in one class, 3rd and 4th in another, and the school had a class each for the rest of the grades. The challenges that the school faced are confronted by many other rural public schools across India — poor infrastructure and student facilities, teacher shortage, low student learning levels, among other issues.
On one occasion, I sat with the 8th graders to know more about their lives. Knowing their lives was easy, but discussing dreams was tricky.
“So, what do you want to do after school? Who do you want to be?”
The silence lasted for a couple of minutes. A little bit of prodding elicited a response from one of the boys, Rizwan.
“I want to be a driver.”
“A driver? What kind?”
“A private taxi driver that ferries passengers from Mandawa to Jhunjhunu and other local places. One of my cousins is doing it and has earned a lot of money. He has made enough money to buy a car for himself.”
Rizwan’s peers nodded in agreement. Being a local driver was a big aspiration — one that would transform their lives, the way they knew it.
That year, the plan was to celebrate Holi, ‘the festival of colours’, with the students in Mandawa-8. However, there was a problem — the Muslim neighbourhood did not celebrate the holiday.
After consulting with the school staff, it was decided that the second half of a specific day in the week preceding the holiday would be assigned for a Holi art activity.
The students had never played with gulal, or thrown coloured water at each other or danced. Together with the children, everyone visualised what Holi must be like; the ones who had witnessed it on television or the movies shared their experience. The idea was to play and recreate the joy and spirit of Holi. Sheets, chart papers, and colours were handed to every classroom (including the staff), and everyone got to their task.
What was witnessed during and after the activity was the sheer magic of imagination. Colours, creative collaboration and storytelling were on full display. Everyone hung their drawings in their respective classrooms (and staff room), beaming with pride while talking about their creations.
They crafted stories, reaching out to their ingenuity and experiences with joy.
A cursory survey of innovations in learning around the world will show that curricula blended with diverse experiences and contexts have tremendous impact. Experiences shape narrative and narrative is a powerful influence on one’s action (or inaction) in this world of possibilities and uncertainties.
The 4th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of the UN is to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all’. According to the Global Education Development Report, achieving the higher education related target 4.3 by 2030 will not only help in meeting the SDG4 but also all the other SDGs. Quite a few countries will have delays in meeting the deadlines, while India is expected to be late by half a century.
A meaningful higher education has the potential to offset and go beyond many challenges that learners have faced in the past and will face in the future. Time and hope is of the essence when human potential is at stake, not just a mere goal.
To explore what a good approach might be, we can look for inspiration at a field that witnesses a mind-boggling rate of change, transforming the world and education as we know it — technology. There is little doubt that technology will continue to play a great role in shaping learners’ engagement. Apart from the ‘tech’, a significant value technology might have to offer is an attitude with great potential for higher education in particular.
The Agile Philosophy
Agile software development works on a set of principles under which requirements and solutions evolve through the collaborative efforts of self-organising cross-functional teams. The agile method is adaptive to changing realities in meeting milestones and outcomes. The idea is to target complex systems in a non-linear fashion, reducing risks with shorter feedback loops and evolving along the way.
Based on the Agile Manifesto, here are 7 principles for an agile higher education that can be globally relevant.
7 Principles for an Agile Higher Education
- Motivated learners are determined to be successful and should be trusted to make the most of their learning pathway
- Demonstrable knowledge and wisdom/learning is the primary measure of student success
- Observe and welcome the evolving needs of students wherever they are in their learning pathway; maintain a sustainable curricular development at a constant pace
- Continuous attention to pathways and learning excellence
- Maintaining simplicity and coherence in the learning pathway is essential
- Close co-operation between learners and educators, and educators and infrastructure providers (government, community, donors, tech providers, etc.). All stakeholders reflect together on how to adjust and adapt to challenges to meet learning outcomes more effectively
- The best insights into effective practices, recognition of students’ needs, and valuable learning pathways emerge from active, self-organising collaborative learners
The aim here is not to be frivolously analogous or comparative — it is to spark an approach to the difficult issues in education today. The model is not perfect, but each principle is worthy of challenge and in-depth discussions and explorations to understand how we can practice them in our relevant contexts, wherever in the world we are. An agile approach presents an opportunity to learners, communities and institutions to challenge our rigid structures, figure out what works and evolve our theories of change with intelligent fast failure.
We are living in a world where truth is besieged, fear magnifies our differences, and discussing values may seem like empty rhetoric. What we may forget in the midst of all this are millions of dreams. We may fail to recognise how it affects us all. We may miss out on the opportunities we have to provide for all learners, including ourselves, diverse learning experiences to know more about their lives and the lives of others. Good education remains a powerful force against fear and ignorance. Nevertheless, these are difficult times.
Let’s talk about solutions and possibilities, however disillusioned we are. Higher education is not the job of educationists alone. If you are going to a good college or going abroad, great — how do you think we can help more disadvantaged students have qualitative experiences at affordable costs? If you think formal institutions are becoming redundant, what ideas do you have for gaining skills through alternative learning pathways? Let’s discuss our ideas and visions for an agile higher education. Bring your power and passion to the table.
All of us have varying levels of privileges which give our futures the chance few students of Mandawa would grow up to have. Let’s discuss the stuff of our dreams. Let us also look to make higher education agile for millions to have dreams like our own.
(Written as an EdSurge Independent Fellow for the publication on Medium)